Rudy Rummel is the world champion counter of dead people. He’s an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Hawaii who has spent most of his career estimating the number of people killed in wars and by murderous regimes. He coined a new word, “democide,” to designate murders perpetrated by a government against its own citizens. By every measure, the victims of democide outnumber those people killed in battle or, as helpless citizens, by the actions of armed forces. I’m 74 and I have been reading Rummel’s research occasionally since I was a graduate student, so he must have started early in this line of work. Certainly he still continues it, publishing his research on web sites and now on a blog. See http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills. Also, see his blog on democratic peace at http://freedomspeace.blogspot.com.)
Rummel had hammered home one specific point over the years: that democracy is the ideal protection against warfare. He has shown, time after time, that democratic countries do not go to war against other democratic countries. Yes, they go to war against undemocratic states, and of course undemocratic states also make war against each other. But democracies do not fight democracies. Naturally, lots of people want to contest that conclusion, which Rummel states as a simple, unequivocal fact without a single exception. I won’t try here to review specific cases that are sometimes trotted out as disproof of his theory. Rummel himself gives a reasonable account of the so-called exceptions to his generalization. Maybe there are one or two that we might consider a stretch (I honestly can’t say, since I am not a good enough historian) but it is clear that the exceptions, if any, are mighty few. The implications are also stunning: if all countries were democratic, there would be no more inter-state wars.
The evidence in favor of democratic peace is really overwhelming. As a social scientist I know of no other causal relationship that holds up empirically on a comparable level. Usually a researcher is happy to find correlations of, say, .3 or .4, but the relationship Rummel calls “democratic peace” is virtually absolute. Critics cannot deny that fact. I say this as a half-hearted admirer of his, for I don’t much care for his politics. I’m a left liberal, but Rummel’s politics are frankly conservative. Obviously, there’s no necessary connection between his admiration for, say, Condoleezza Rice and the validity of his research on democratic peace. Still, I find his politics disappointing just because I would like to promote his work without harboring any mental reservations.
Besides his powerful work on democratic peace, Rummel has investigated the relationship between democracy and democide – which of course is strongly negative. That part is not particularly surprising. After all, if a government massacres or deliberately starves its own people, it would simply have to be called undemocratic by definition. But by combining the number of deaths caused by warfare with the number in the same country caused by democide, Rummel can give a good estimate of the overall number of deaths that a dictator caused during his career.
This week I received an e-mail message from Rummel that he apparently sent out to everyone on his hard drive file – everyone with whom he has corresponded during the past several years. This message is an acknowledgment that he had made a major error that he wants now to correct. It’s a fascinating letter.
He says that he had previously calculated that 174,000,000 persons had died of democide (genocide and mass murder) during the past century. However, two books have convinced him that he must revise the numbers upward to take account of Mao’s democides. He already knew, pretty well, how many people had died in China’s Great Famine of 1958-61. He had not believed, however, that Mao had intentionally killed those people, even though they did die as a result of his faulty policies.
Rummel had attributed the famine to the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s enormous effort to catch up with the West in producing iron and steel. Part of that campaign involved the change from small peasant agriculture to collective farming. The managers of these communes curried favor with their superiors by over-reporting agricultural production to conform to the quotas that had been assigned. This over-reporting allowed the Communist officials to believe that surplus food was being produced and that they could, therefore, export some of it without starving the peasants. When reports began coming in that in a few places some peasants were starving, Beijing sent out investigators, who discovered that there was in fact mass starvation. Immediately the Party stopped exporting food so as to stop the famine. It would be mistaken to call the famine “democide,” as many other scholars was doing, because Mao had been misled and when he found out the truth, he changed his policies.
Or so Rummel believed until recently. In his letter he refers to the other scholars whom he had previously criticized. “They were right and I was wrong.” This admission became necessary after he had read two books by Jung Chang, Wild Swans: Two Daughters of China and the new one she co-authored with her husband, Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story. Rummel respects their research, which involved hundreds of interviews with Communist cadre and former high officials.
These books have convinced Rummel that Mao knew all along what his policies were doing to the people; he just didn’t care! The famine was intentional. The former officials recalled that Mao tried to take even more food from the peasants to finance his international ambitions, but was overruled by a meeting of 7,000 Party officials.
What remains debatable is the number of deaths that the famine cost. Rummel had previously concluded that 27,000,000 Chinese died of starvation or associated diseases, though other scholars put the number at 40,000,000. Chang and Halliday put their estimate at 38,000,000 and, given the thoroughness of their research, Rummel now accepts that number.
This change makes it necessary for him to alter a number of his previously published figures. He now says that Mao murdered about 77,000,000 persons before and after taking over the mainland. He writes, “This exceeds the 61,911,000 murdered by the Soviet Union 1917-1987, with Hitler far behind at 20,946,000 wiped out 1933-1945. For perspective on Mao’s most bloody rule, all wars 1900-1987 cost in combat dead 34,021,000 – including WWI and II, Vietnam, Korea, and the Mexican and Russian Revolutions. Mao alone murdered over twice as many as were killed in combat in all these wars.”
So Mao outdid Stalin, who outdid Hitler. Oh, my God. What numbers: 77 million!
Rummel concludes that Communist regimes murdered four times the number of people killed in combat in the twentieth century, while “globally the democide toll was over six times that number.”
Maybe that does partially explain Rummel’s political conservatism. It seems almost logical to prefer a form of government that is at the opposite pole from Communism. If that were the only choice, I’d agree with him. Fortunately, it's not.